Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lessons From a Massacre

On Wednesday, July 18, 1984, the attention of Americans was drawn to a lot of things.

Some Americans were focused on the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, where Geraldine Ferraro was being nominated for vice president. Until Sarah Palin was chosen to be John McCain's running mate last year, Ferraro was the only woman on a major political party's national ticket.

Other Americans were anticipating the start of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, which were scheduled to begin later that month in Los Angeles. The Soviet Union and more than a dozen Eastern Bloc countries and allies were boycotting the Olympics, but most Americans didn't seem to care. They were just excited to have the Olympics in this country.

I was working nights on the sports copy desk of the Arkansas Gazette. At the time, when I wasn't focused on my job, my thoughts were on the car trouble I had been having and the new car I was planning to buy to replace my old one.

But, whatever one was thinking about on that day was forgotten when news began trickling in about a shooting at a McDonald's in San Ysidro, Calif.

It is worth mentioning at this point that, while mass shootings have become disturbingly commonplace in recent years, they were still relatively rare in 1984. For that reason alone, the shootings at the San Ysidro McDonald's were a source of macabre fascination for many people.

On that day, most people didn't know where San Ysidro was. I certainly didn't. But I learned, from monitoring reports on the Associated Press wire, that it is a community in the San Diego area, just north of the Mexican border.

The shootings began in midafternoon (California time) when a man named James Oliver Huberty walked into the McDonald's with a 9 mm Uzi semi–automatic, a Winchester pump–action 12–gauge shotgun and a 9 mm Browning HP and started shooting. Huberty continued shooting for more than an hour, firing more than 250 rounds and ultimately killing 21 people and injuring 19 more.

A patrol officer was the first to arrive on the scene, but he quickly discovered that he was no match for the heavily armed gunman inside the restaurant.

The officer "radioed in a Code 10 — 'send SWAT' — and seconds later a Code 11 — 'send everybody,' " writes Jim Kavanagh for

Seventy–seven minutes after the shooting began, a SWAT team sniper on the roof of the neighboring post office shot and killed Huberty, bringing the massacre to an end.

But, as Kavanagh reports, it wasn't really the end of it for the police — in southern California or elsewhere.

"Police clearly needed more firepower and a new strategy," Kavanagh writes. And they got both.

Twenty–five years later, police departments have developed special response teams to handle emergency situations like the one at the San Ysidro McDonald's. They've also implemented professional counseling programs for officers who are involved in traumatic incidents.

Such programs have played key roles in assisting responders to all kinds of things in the years that have passed.

In hindsight, they seem like obvious things — but, as I say, mass shootings were somewhat rare in those days.

Police work is an evolving science. As weapons and perpetrators become more sophisticated, the need for more sophisticated approaches to law enforcement becomes clear as well. Citizens must hope that those who are charged with the responsibility of protecting them and their loved ones learn the crucial lessons.

It is fortunate for everyone that police departments learned some important lessons from the experience.

Perhaps the most important lesson was that no police department, no matter how well–trained or well–equipped its people may be, will ever be able to prevent a tragedy from occurring.

But it can be better prepared to respond to it and to deal with its aftermath.

I'm sure James Huberty never thought of that when he was shooting at people on that July afternoon in San Ysidro.

But that is his legacy. And the rest of us are better off for it.

No comments: